Frequently asked questions about residential building surveys

Why they cost what they do, and what to consider when you are comparing quotes

Frequently asked questions about residential building surveys

At Harrison Clarke, we understand how much people care about their homes, and how important it is that they are reassured about the structural quality and the safety of their home when they are looking to purchase a property.

Here, we respond to questions we are often asked by our clients about four key areas: Walls, Ceilings, Damp and Heating.

Walls

What are you looking for when you are inspecting walls in a residential survey?

Walls are clearly a fundamental structural component of a residential property so a thorough inspection of all the walls in a property is an essential element of any residential survey report, whether it is Level 2 or Level 3.

Your surveyor will take the time to inspect as much of the internal wall surfaces that it is possible for them to access. If it is practicable , they will move lighter items out of the way to get to the walls, but they cannot be expected to move heavy items that are blocking wall surfaces, like wardrobes and dressers.

Your surveyor will be looking for signs of structural movement, damp or damaged finishes. It is a mostly visual inspection, but they will also use a moisture meter to test the walls for rising damp or water ingress.

To do this accurately, they will need to identify what the walls are made of, and consider whether the walls are behaving in the way that would normally be expected.

Walls are solid, aren’t they? What can go wrong?

Actually, not all walls are made of solid brickwork. It is becoming more and more common in new builds and altered houses for lighter-weight timber or metal partitioning to be used, as it is often quicker and cheaper to erect than masonry walls. 

These types of lightweight walls have different behavioural characteristics to brickwork walls. For example, their lighter weight makes them more prone to thermal expansion. 

A common cause of internal cracking is that studwork walls expand and contract at a different rate to masonry walls, which can allow cracks to appear where the two different wall types join. This is normally considered acceptable and most of these cracks do not indicate structural deficiencies.

Occasionally, however, we identify cracks that do indicate structural issues. The pattern of such cracking can normally allow the surveyor to understand exactly where the movement is coming from, so they can target further investigation or remedial work as necessary. This further investigation could include establishing whether the foundations are correctly sized, whether the drains are in poor condition, or if another cause such as tree roots can be identified.

Another issue with walls can be dampness, which can be due to a range of different factors that we go on to detail further in this article. We will always seek to identify the cause of damp walls and set out requirements for remedial works or further investigation.

Your surveyor will also consider the condition of the wall finishes and can advise you on when/whether these might need work in the future. For example, they might identify areas of loose plaster which should be replaced before you redecorate your new home.

What should I do if my surveyor finds problems with the walls?

Firstly, don’t panic. Working with a Chartered Building Surveyor before you purchase a property, giving you plenty of time to review their findings before you have to make a decision, means that you do not have to worry. The report, and subsequent support of your surveyor, will help you figure out whether a property is right for you. 

It is a reminder, however, of the importance of getting a survey done, as properties can hide  underlying issues which may not be obvious during your viewings with the estate agent. Finding out about issues after you have signed on the dotted line could be very costly.

When we write our survey report, we do not just make a list of any defects we find. We explain whether we are suggesting further investigation or remedial works, taking a pragmatic view and balancing the cost of further investigation with the cost of likely remedial works. We work with you to ensure that you fully understand the issues and what needs to happen next.

Whether you have commissioned a Level 2 or Level 3 survey, we continue working with you to explain and advise on any issues, at no extra cost, even after we have sent your detailed survey report. Many of our competitors do not include this service as part of a Level 2 instruction so, before you instruct anyone else, you should make sure that you are clear about the service they provide after they have sent you your report.

Should I still buy the property if problems are found with the walls?

We are asked this question a lot. Although we are unable to make your purchase decision for you, we will do whatever we can to make sure that you have a complete understanding of the situation and have all the information you need to make your own, fully informed decision.

Some clients do not want to have to complete any building work at all, preferring to move into a home they can use straightaway. Some might not have the financial means to complete remedial work, and others might be planning large scale refurbishment projects that will have remedial work factored into their project’s budget.

In a recent survey inspection, we found movement that would cost around £15,000 to fix, but this was in the context of a unique £1m property in a desirable area which meant that it did not put our client off from going ahead with the property purchase. Their decision may have been different if the £15,000 repair cost was needed on a smaller, more modest home.

Ceilings

What are you looking for when you are inspecting ceilings?

Although ceilings are a pretty straightforward building component, and not usually the cause of major issues, it is still important to give them attention during your survey, to avoid unwanted surprises.

In most situations, a visual ceiling inspection will be enough. However, in some circumstances, the surveyor will give the ceiling a bit of a prod, to make sure that it is securely fixed and not in danger of falling.

Modern, plasterboard ceilings with a flat finish tend to only present minor decorative issues.

Older ceilings with a textured finish, or those made from lath and plaster (an older form of construction technology), can harbour more serious issues which we expand on here.

What problems do you find in ceilings?

We always take a risk-based approach and will give advice on ceilings which may look to be in good condition but might be covering up underlying defects. 

We also consider whether ceilings look to be adequately fixed. Minor issues with fixings can arise, pushing small sections of skim plaster away – we call these ‘nail pops’, which are usually easily rectified. 

The two most common issues that come up time and time again when we are inspecting ceilings are visible cracks and possible asbestos content.

Most ceiling cracks are ‘hairline’. These are very narrow cracks which normally develop as a result of thermal movement, or perhaps from a slight flex in the timber floor they are joined to above. Hairline cracks are not normally structurally significant and can easily be filled as part of your redecoration process.

Ceilings made of lath and plaster stopped being used in widespread construction many years ago, so they are normally very old. They will often suffer from apparently random cracking, as the plaster loses its grip on the underlying timber laths. As part of our survey, we determine whether they will need to be replaced in the near future, and consider whether they appear to be in safe condition.  

If we suspect that an old lath and plaster ceiling has been over-boarded, although we will not be able to tell from a visual-only inspection how the new ceiling has been affixed it might be appropriate for us to include, in your survey, some additional information on what to do if cracking is identified. 

There have been rare instances where this type of over-boarding work has failed and ceilings have collapsed. If this happens, it usually means that the new ceiling has not been adequately secured, which can be a serious safety hazard as ceilings can be heavier than they first appear.

Asbestos is obviously a serious concern. Textured ceiling finishes constructed before the year 2000 have been known to have contained asbestos fibres as a binder in their plaster mix, so we normally advise that these are tested for asbestos, particularly if they need work. 

In a property with a combination of flat and textured finishes, it may be that the textured finish has been over-skimmed with a flat finish, with the textured finish still underneath. This means that sometimes even flat plastered ceilings can contain asbestos.

If a textured finish type of ceiling is undamaged and undisturbed, it should not pose a hazard to human health BUT it can become a problem if ceilings are damaged or drilled. As the removal of asbestos-containing ceiling coatings can be costly, it is crucial that this risk is identified before you complete your purchase.

My survey found issues with the ceilings. What should I do now?

Normally, if issues are found with ceilings, the remedial work is quite straightforward. However, it is worth noting that ceiling repairs and replacements can be costly, especially if the problems are widespread.

It is very rare for the condition of the ceilings to cause a purchase to fall through. We cannot recall it happening even once. We do appreciate, though, each client and each building are unique and we will make sure that you fully understand what is required, and whether you will be happy to complete any necessary works.

The cost of a Level 2 or Level 3 report from Harrison Clarke includes a thorough conversation with your surveyor after you have received your residential survey, so that you can talk everything through and ask any questions you may have. At no extra cost, we will continue to give you advice and provide any further information to help you make an informed buying decision. Our priority is for you to be happy and for you to have peace of mind.

Tip: If you are using another surveyor, make sure that this service is included, as some charge an additional fee for follow-up consultations.

Damp

What is a damp survey?

A damp survey is the process of inspecting a building to assess the extent of dampness or water ingress, its causes, and reporting those findings to the client. It is often referred to as a ‘single defect inspection’.

Typically, we will be asked to complete a damp survey if a client notices dampness on internal walls. Dampness may also be flagged as an issue during the property purchase process by the mortgage company’s valuer, or by another surveyor completing a Level 2 (Homebuyer) report.

When we inspect for dampness, we first speak with the owner or occupier to find out what signs and symptoms they saw that caused them to call us in. This briefing acts as a starting point for further investigation. 

We usually use our moisture meter to detect signs of dampness. The moisture meter a professional surveyor uses is generally much more sophisticated and sensitive than a reasonably priced one you can pick up at a hardware store. Along with the surveyor’s experience and intuition, the moisture meter can help to create a picture of the true extent of the dampness – this often goes beyond the dampness originally reported.

To determine whether a building component is damp, our surveyors will also consider smells, which can indicate long-standing and serious dampness. In many cases, the dampness will also be visible, either through discolouration or through the bubbling of plaster.

Once we have established the extent of the dampness, we start looking for clues as to the cause of the dampness.

How do you identify the cause of dampness?

This can be tricky. In some instances, dampness can be caused by a single issue, such as running overflow pipes, but often there might be more than one contributing factor, so it is important that we consider all possible causes.

When we see dampness in older, perhaps more run-down properties, there can be a number of contributing factors such as leaking gutters, damaged render, inappropriately detailed render, failed damp proof courses, clogged cavities, leaking pipes, and so on.

It is crucial that we inspect the building intelligently and thoroughly, stepping back to look at the whole picture, rather than limiting the inspection to the area of the dampness. The extent of the inspection will depend on the exact nature of the dampness and how long it has been there, for example if it has suddenly appeared.

A lot of people get in touch after a big storm, when they suddenly notice new areas of dampness. Often, in these circumstances, the heavy rain has exposed an external building maintenance issue. For example, if the external brickwork needs repointing it will take in more water than a properly maintained wall. A classic example of ‘a stitch in time saves nine’! In this instance, we would recommend repointing, which is often all you need to solve that particular damp issue.

Why is damp a problem?

Most modern buildings are designed to provide a dry internal environment which means that some building components, such as timber floors, need the internal environment to remain dry so that they do not rot, for example.

Dampness in buildings can also encourage mould growth, which can contribute toward, or aggravate, respiratory conditions such as asthma. In extreme cases, it can also result in visible condensation moisture developing on internal surfaces  – not just around windows but also on walls and ceilings.

How do you report on issues after the damp inspection?

We always agree the extent and methodology of reporting with you when you instruct us to go ahead with your damp survey. Sometimes, we will discuss the issues on site and report back through a short email, though we are more likely to write a letter reporting on the issues. If you need us to, we can send a copy of this report to a third party, such as a mortgage lender.

If it is the most pragmatic solution, we might suggest a phased approach, addressing the most obvious causes of the damp, and perhaps deferring more expensive work. This phased approach will only be suitable under certain circumstances, and will depend on the client’s exact requirements. For example, if the dampness is being treated during a refurbishment, the developer might not want to wait several months for the brickwork to dry out before they can move on to the next phase of building work.

Why should I use a Chartered Building Surveyor for a damp inspection?

A Chartered Building Surveyor will have refined their skills for inspecting building defects over a number of years and will have a vast knowledge of how buildings are constructed, and how they can fail. A Chartered Building Surveyor will also carry professional indemnity insurance, so the advice they are giving is always backed by insurance.

When you have damp on internal walls, it might be tempting to first approach a damp-proofing contractor. Unless you really trust the damp proofing contractor, you should consider whether the damp proofing contractor has the same knowledge and skill as a surveyor and, more importantly, whether they have a vested interest in selling you more damp treatments than you actually need.

In our experience, we have found that contractors sometimes provide a solution which treats the symptoms but not the cause of the damp, which can often be much more expensive.

How can I arrange a damp survey?

If you have noticed damp in your own property and would like a Chartered Building Surveyor to complete a damp survey, one of our expert surveyors at Harrison Clarke will be happy to discuss your requirements over the phone, before sending you a fee proposal so that you are fully aware of the costs of a damp survey before agreeing to go ahead.

It depends on their availability, but one of our surveyors will usually be able to carry out a damp survey for you within a week or two of you getting in touch with us.

Heating

What do you look for when inspecting the heating system?

A building needs to be warm, as well as wind and weathertight. For this reason, inspecting the heating system is an important part of a residential survey.

Your building surveyor will not have the necessary expertise to service and safety test heating appliances, but there are things that they can, and do, look out for.

The surveyor will establish how the property is heated. This could be through a system boiler, combination boiler, or through other means like panel heaters, storage heaters or solid fuel burners.

They will look for signs that the heating system has been adequately maintained and looked after, and for any indications that part or all of the heating system will need replacing in the near future.

Our surveyors will seek to establish whether the boiler has been subjected to a suitable servicing and safety testing regime. Typically, boilers serviced annually can expect a longer lifespan, with fewer problems, than those which have not been regularly serviced.

We will identify the type of boiler and its suitability for the property under normal use. For example, combination boilers might not be appropriate in a house with several mixer showers, as they might struggle to generate sufficient hot water.

We will consider the age and visible appearance of the main heating appliances, and also the other components such as heating pipework and radiators.

As energy costs are ever increasing, in Level 3 surveys we will also give advice on the energy efficiency of a heating system, and will make recommendations for improving controls if it is appropriate. 

Where it looks like the boiler or other parts of a heating system might be nearing the end of their service life, we will state this in our report and, in a Level 3 report, we will also provide a cost estimate for the works entailed.

What can a surveyor tell me that a heating engineer cannot?

The majority of home buyers do not commission a heating engineer’s assessment of the heating system, and so it is down to the surveyor to complete this aspect of the inspection as part of your home survey. 

An experienced heating engineer could probably provide more detailed information on the heating system than a surveyor, but they cannot do so if they are not asked to inspect it!

Instead, your surveyor will be able to reassure you with a review of the overall condition of the heating system.

Should I still buy the property if problems are found with the heating system?

As they are mechanical installations, rather than part of the structure of the building, heating systems have a short service life in comparison with, say, the walls or the roof of a building. For this reason, it is more common for us to recommend the replacement of heating components than other building elements.

Whether or not you still buy the property is for you to decide. However, we can assist your purchase decision by working with you to ensure you fully understand the commitment you are taking on, and giving you as much information and advice as possible. This is all part of our service and comes at no extra charge.

This all sounds really useful, how can I arrange a survey?

The best thing to do is contact our team of experienced surveyors, who can explain your pre-purchase residential survey options.

Remember, our survey report cost covers all the advice and information you may need, after you have received our report and throughout the rest of your purchasing process. If you are using another Chartered Surveyor, make sure you are clear about the service they offer you, as many of our competitors charge extra to support you after they have provided their report.

If you have a specific issue, like those we have described here, in a property you already own, we would be happy to help you and make sure that your home is safe to live in.

You can call our friendly, expert and highly qualified surveyors on 023 8155 0051, or email us at info@harrisonclarke.co. We would be delighted to answer any questions you may have.

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